ANNOUNCER: Be sure to see--: [HAPPY BIRTHDAY MUSIC PLAYS BRIEFLY]
CHORUS: [SINGING] MOTOROLA TV!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cabinet styles and dependable chassis's were a big selling point in the early days of television, but soon America was ready for something a little more colorful. The black and white era began to fade 50 years ago next week. Joining me is Marshall Fisher, co-author of Tube: The History of Television. Marshall welcome to OTM.
MARSHALL FISHER: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the reason why we're doing this interview is because Monday is the 50th anniversary of June 25th, 1951 when CBS premiered its color broadcasting system with an evening of television featuring Ed Sullivan among others, but is this really the date of the first color broadcast?
MARSHALL FISHER: Well I suppose it is except that no one could see that broadcast. [LAUGHTER] So in fact June 25th is not quite the important date, although late June of 1951 is still an important week.
What happened was on June 25th CBS did have Ed Sullivan and a lot of their other st-- black and white TV stars put on this hour long gala premiere. The problem was that what CBS was using was a color technology which was not compatible with black and white, so although there were 12 million television sets out there, none of - or only about a dozen of those 12 million sets could actually pick up the broadcast, and those were at special studio parties.
Later that very week, as it happens, RCA, their bitter competitor -- they gave a demonstration of their color system which was compatible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And behind the RCA system was one man -- one rather-- megalomaniacal, passionate man named David Sarnoff who was also a-- RCA also owned the NBC network--
MARSHALL FISHER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- his system was compatible, but an early test proved it to be at least at the beginning far inferior, right?
MARSHALL FISHER: Yeah. Well actually Sarnoff, although he was completely monomaniacal [sic] about beating out CBS for color television, also was trying to delay color television in general. What he wanted to do was get the full marketing or profit potential out of black and white before he got color going. CBS, even though they had an incompatible system, one that could not be seen on black and white sets, they declared they had commercial quality color television --therefore that forced Sarnoff to come out and demonstrate his system which really wasn't quite ready.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Sarnoff was determined to have the RCA system prevail, and then fortunately the Korean War intervened--
MARSHALL FISHER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- which gave him time to do just that!
MARSHALL FISHER:It gave Sarnoff time to get his labs really working and perfect their system, and the FCC kept flip-flopping. By the time the Korean War ended they flipped again and said that it was the RCA system that should prevail, and by then they were -- that was the correct decision. I mean the RCA system was far superior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ultimately Sarnoff was right. In 1954, however, he predicted [LAUGHS] that 75,000 sets would be sold and only 5,000 sets were-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MARSHALL FISHER: Yeah. Uh-huh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- now in the parlance of our times, what Sarnoff needed, what RCA needed was a "killer ap"--
MARSHALL FISHER: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- give people a reason to buy the set. What was the "killer ap" for color television?
MARSHALL FISHER:I suppose it was when RCA acquired a black and white program which I -- was called something like the Walt Disney Hour or something, and they decided to, to-- produce it in color in 1960 they premiered Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and that was -- became a huge show and-- in fact 1960 was the year where RCA recorded their first profit from color TV.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
MARSHALL FISHER: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marshall Fisher is the co-author of Tube: The Invention of Television.
WOMAN: George really does know something about television!
MAN:Oh, I've been doing a bit of reading on it. I figure it's gonna be a big thing one of these days, and-- naturally I want to know all I can about it!
MAN: Well that's the right spirit. Lots of people thought radio was an overnight fad. Wouldn't amount to anything. [LAUGHTER] But [LAUGHS] look at it today!